Contrary to fears that the Internet will destroy community life, a University of Toronto sociologist says it could integrate society in new ways.
In Networks in the Global Village, Professor Barry Wellman of the department of sociology and the Centre for Urban and Community Studies notes that Internet users can find companionship and a sense of belonging through support groups and other online resources. "There's been a big fear that there isn't enough emotional contact on the Net," says Wellman, who edited the book. "This turns out not to be true. There is clearly enough social presence online to allow people to relate to each other."
Electronic communities often operate according to principles that govern traditional communities such as reciprocity and attachment, he says in the chapter Net Surfers Don't Ride Alone: Virtual Communities as Communities, co-authored with Professor Milena Gulia of urban and community studies. While the Internet may accelerate the trend toward socializing in private homes rather than public places, the ease and speed of communicating with large numbers of people in cyberspace may stimulate new social interaction. Information about a person's socioeconomic status, ethnicity, gender and age is absent online, which encourages relationships between people who otherwise might not communicate.
Social ties developed on computer networks tend to be informal, diverse and specialized according to shared interests, Wellman says, but intimate Internet relationships are also possible. They just take longer to develop because of the slower, less immediate nature of the interaction. "It may be a little harder, but you can do anything online including make love in virtual ways," he says.
Networks in the Global Village will be published by Westview Press this summer.
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